Atlas F1   Reflections on Imola

  by Roger Horton, England

Much has happened at the third event of the 2000 season.

Saturday served up one of the best qualifying sessions in a long while, the action building all through its one-hour duration, until Mika Hakkinen found that little extra speed through the last section of his last lap, to wrestle the pole away from his arch-rival Michael Schumacher.

The race itself held the interest pretty much all throughout the 62 laps. But once the Mclaren of Hakkinen pitted on lap 44, with the chasing Ferrari of Schumacher allowed to pound out those few critical fuel-light laps prior to its own stop, then the issue was settled. We have all watched that particular move before, and the outcome is nearly always the same. Just why the McLaren pit-wall 'brains trust' continues to be outwitted in this way is one of F1's minor mysteries.

But before a wheel had even turned at Imola, the FIA President, Max Mosley, held a press conference in which he laid out the FIA's position on one of Formula One's most contentious issues: controlling the murky area of traction control.

Mosley got everyone's attention when he announced that some new scrutineering procedures would come into force at Silverstone, the next race on the calendar. "The reason for this is that we have become aware of the operation by some teams of open-loop traction control systems," Mosley explained. "These systems allow the engine management to 'know' when the rear wheels are turning faster than they should, and react accordingly." When asked whether this meant that there was a team running an illegal car last year, he replied: "We believe this may have been the case."

The FIA banned all forms of 'driver aids' at the end of the 1993 season. Alarmed that the then-new technologies were taking away too many functions that tested the skill of the driver, traction control was outlawed along with ABS braking, automatic gearboxes and active suspensions.

During his press conference Mosley once again summarised the reason for his tough stand on the issue, saying that "If traction control were to be permitted, even a driver with comparatively modest skills would be able to floor the throttle coming out of a slow corner in the wet, and the electronic system would take care of any problems. The great skill is getting the maximum acceleration, when you have what is in effect unlimited horsepower, under difficult conditions." He further stated that, "By permitting traction control, we would therefore eliminate one of the three fundamental skills involved in driving a racing car."

The suspicion that some teams have been using a form of traction or launch control has been around the paddock ever since it was banned. During the '94 season the Benetton team was under an almost constant cloud of rumours and scrutiny. Since then, suspicions have been aroused whenever a team suddenly put in a quicker-than-expected qualifying lap or race performance. The last such case was Ferrari's sudden speed during last year's Malaysian Grand Prix, when Michael Schumacher was some 1.1 seconds faster in qualifying than the nearest McLaren.

It has to be in everyone's interest that the FIA enforce its scrutineering procedures to be 100 percent sure that the teams are competing on a level playing field, although given their resources it is still a moot point as to whether this can ever be achieved. Modern electronics are by far the most difficult area to police, as unlike the physical dimension or weight of the car, the offending part cannot be just measured or weighed.

The current involvement of some of the world's largest motor manufacturers in Grand Prix Racing adds a further complication to this already delicate issue. Cheating, or bending the rules, has been a part of the sport since anyone can remember. When the teams were small, and the 'all is fair in love and war' attitude prevailed, then being caught hardly mattered. Indeed just how some teams cheated and got away with it is now part of the folklore of Formula One.

But now the big players are involved to prove the superiority of their technology and to enhance their all-important brand awareness. Should a team now be caught cheating, it is almost certainly going to involve a 'big name' company, and who wants to buy a car from a company caught abusing the rules, or at the very least, shown to be unable to control the actions of its employees or sub contractors. One gets the feeling that by going public on the issue first, the FIA is hoping to scare everyone enough to ensure that there are eleven legal engines on the track at Silverstone.

It has to be hoped that any team found guilty from here on is punished effectively and that hopefully, the whispers and innuendo will now stop. No doubt the grid order at Silverstone will be especially scrutinised, to spot any apparent performance deviation from this season's accepted order.

On the track at Imola we finally saw the McLarens run competitively against the Ferraris until the finish. Whatever level of performance advantage one team has over the other, it was only marginally apparent over the course of the three days.

There have been some comments concerning the several near-misses that occurred in the pitlane during the race. It is hardly surprising that there were some fraught moments, because if you let the cars loose on a circuit that virtually guarantees no passing for position, then it is not surprising the 'lollipop' men will be prepared to cut things fine when a possible 'pass in the pits' is on. One day perhaps F1 will reap what the FIA's policy has sown in mandating a set of specifications that sees the passing action compressed into several bursts of 8 to 10 seconds of frantic pit activity.

One year on from his rather disappointing performance at this race past year, David Coulthard was again left lamenting just what might have been. Trapped behind Rubens Barrichelo's Ferrari from the start, he eventually emerged ahead of the Ferrari number four after his pit-stop on lap 46 with a 43.5 second deficit to Schumacher. Ten laps later the gap was reduced by a fraction, clearly showing that, at least around the Imola track, the Scot is the equal of any driver out there.

So Michael Schumacher left the San Marino event as the hero of all Italy, and the happy contented face of team boss Jean Todt during the podium presentations said it all. Ferrari's so far almost bulletproof reliability has put Schumacher on course to finally end the Maranello team's long wait for their first drivers' title since 1979.

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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